Church and Nation: Unity or Division?
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
June 12, 2018

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) on June 10, 2018, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Genesis 3:9-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1; and Mark 3:20-35.

We left off our chronological journey through the Gospel of Mark four months ago, but now for much of the next five-and-a-half months, we’ll explore the original written account of the life of Jesus Christ.

Mark packs a lot into our gospel passage today. He includes accusations of demon possession, a hard-to-interpret interaction between Jesus and his family, and a passage more familiar to many of us because of Abraham Lincoln’s quotation of it.

This passage contains two classic features of the Gospel of Mark. The first is sandwiching – Mark begins to tell one story, interrupts himself to tell another story, and then returns to the original story. The other feature common in Mark is the tension between insiders and outsiders. Metaphorically, there are people who understand Jesus’ message and those who don’t. More literally, the action in the early chapters of Mark switches from being indoors to being outdoors, and then back to inside again.

As we return to Ordinary Time, we celebrate that with the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.

Our gospel passage has many ideas that clamor for our attention, so let me first tell you about two things that I’m NOT going to address today:

  1. If Mary was ever virgin, how could Jesus have brothers and sisters?
  2. What does Jesus mean by the “unforgiveable sin”?

These questions are both worth answering. Here are links to address them:

Question #1: see this footnote.1

Question #2: Paulist Fr. Dave Dwyer’s explanation on the Busted Halo Cast, episode #239

Now, for today’s homily:

Ever since Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump became the forerunners for their political parties’ nominations for president, it seems as if our American news system has focused even more exclusively on the personalities of our politicians than ever before. The horrendous strife in Syria, South Sudan, and El Salvador? We hadn’t been hearing much about these issues before 2016, but now we’re hearing even less!

As a parish priest, I feel it’s my duty to stay abreast of current events, but in the past two years, it seems to take more and more work to stay up-to-date. More of the news seems to be about insults and outrageous statements, and less of it seems to be about substance. With so many charges of “fake news” ricocheting between the political right and the political left, I have to read multiple sources to determine the truth. Some editorials from reputable news organizations can help my critical thinking about an issue, but others are short on facts and long on insults. Sometimes, I only get three sentences into reading a “news” article before clicking the webpage closed in disgust at the amount of hatred I’ve already absorbed.

How did things go so badly?

From our first reading today, it’s pretty clear that the original sin of the human race was immediately followed by the original denial of responsibility. Adam tells God, “It’s not my fault. The woman whom you put here with me: she made me do it!” Eve says, “It’s not my fault. The serpent tricked me into it.”

What a great setup to our gospel passage today, which seems to take character assassination to an art form. The scribes from the big bad city of Jerusalem – “insiders” of the Jewish faith, but “outsiders” to the recent events in Capernaum – declare that Jesus can only drive out demons because he is in league with demons. (That sounds a lot like an increasing number of political commentators today, doesn’t it?)

Then, once Jesus seems to have settled the dustup with the scribes, there’s an issue with Jesus’ family not being able to get inside to see him. Some Scripture scholars say that Jesus and his family are rejecting one another, but other scholars argue that Jesus is simply elevating those who believe the gospel to the same “insider” level as his family. So even in the gospels, we have a statement by our Lord and Savor Jesus Christ of which we cannot decide if it’s a unifying statement or a divisive statement. We haven’t made much progress in the 2,000 years since Jesus walked among us or the 3,000 years since the story of Adam and Eve was first written down in Sacred Scripture.

In this time of tremendous division, I’m among the luckiest people in the entire American workforce. St. Austin’s seems to be a refuge from partisan division. Unlike most churches in the United States, the community of St. Austin Catholic Parish is remarkably politically diverse. Since we are within a few blocks of both the University of Texas and the Texas state legislature, our school includes children from over 40 different ZIP codes in central Texas. I have no way of knowing for sure, but my best guess is our parishioners voted 50/50 for Trump and Clinton in 2016. The vast majority of our parishioners are comfortable praying and collaborating with people across the spectrum of political diversity.

How did things go so well?

Perhaps – at least within the walls of St. Austin Church – we’ve been good at not sinning against the Holy Spirit. Even when people disagree with us, we don’t call them heretics or agents of the devil. In our worship and in our service, we recognize that we each have gifts from the Holy Spirit.

Or, from a more secular perspective, I quote reporter Steve Kolowich, who said this when reporting on the battle over political speech at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln a few weeks ago: “Free speech is supposed to be one of the few remaining ideas in American politics that everyone can agree on. But free speech doesn’t solve political conflicts. It creates them. Solving them requires more advanced tools, like trust, humility, dialogue, listening.” (When following the link, please note that there is an option to hear a version that “beeps” out the profanity in the story.)

Clearly, God has given a lot of us in the room these advanced tools, these gifts of the Holy Spirit. Many of us have a say within important spheres of influence in Central Texas and beyond. We are all part of the largest religious denomination in the country.

We are one Church. We are one nation. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

  1. Here’s a paragraph from a homily I gave on July 8, 2012: “There are several references in the Bible to people called Jesus’ ‘brothers and sisters.’ Most often, we hear references after the resurrection to ‘James, the brother of the Lord.’ Christians have come up with three possible explanations. The first is that some traditions say that Mary was Joseph’s second wife. He had been widowed, but he had had children with his first wife. The second is that the term ‘brothers and sisters’ might have been used by people in first-century Judea to refer to all close relatives, including cousins. And the third possibility is the most literal: while Jesus was the first-born child of Mary, perhaps Mary and Joseph had other children after Jesus. Now, the Catholic Church holds that Mary remained a virgin her entire life. So, if you’re Catholic – you can take option 1 or 2. If you’re not Catholic, you also have option 3.”